What’s Next for the Toronto Raptors?

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Masai Ujiri took over as general manager of the Toronto Raptors not too long ago. It was May 31, 2013, and the Raptors had just put the bow on a 34-48 regular season in which they failed to make the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

When Ujiri took over, the first question that many pondered was whether he would pull the plug on the roster that he had inherited and opt for an all-out rebuild. It certainly seemed the best course of action, especially with Ontario native Andrew Wiggins readying to enter the draft.

Before long, however, it became clear to Ujiri that his Raptors had pieces and potential—two things that tantalize front offices in the NBA.

The fateful decision to double down on the talent in Toronto is now worth second guessing.

Two straight division titles. Two straight first round exits. Where do the Raptors go from here?

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For Kyle Lowry, it was never a question about talent; it was always about his drive and his ability to stay healthy. This season, there is no question that he did an admirable job of helping to lead the Raptors to their second consecutive Atlantic Division title, but what good is that if the team cannot collectively maintain its health throughout the season and the playoffs? Lowry missed 12 games this past season—a far cry from the three games he missed during the 2013-14 season.

DeMar DeRozan has grown into one of the best shooting guards in the Eastern Conference. He plays with a lot of  energy and effort and has shown a consistent ability to hit big shots. He has matured over his six years in the league and can now, like Lowry, boast of his status as an All-Star-caliber performer. Unlike Lowry, DeRozan still has his youth on his side. At just 25 years old, we can rest assured that he will continue to progress along the continuum of being a plus-contributor in the NBA.

Combined, Lowry and DeRozan, when fully healthy, form one of the better tandems in the Eastern Conference and certainly one of the top backcourts. But after two consecutive first round exits, Ujiri now finds his team at a bit of a crossroads. When you are eliminated in the first round in consecutive years after entering the postseason with aspirations of competing and making a deep run, tough questions will be asked and they will need to be answered.

That is true for the Portland Trail Blazers, it may be true of the Los Angeles Clippers and it is certainly true of the Raptors.

The ball is now bouncing in Ujiri’s court.

Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics showed us that being proactive about rebuilding can yield positive long-term results for a franchise. Had he opted to keep his core of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jeff Green together, the Celtics may have been able to qualify for the postseason this year and even if they hobbled in, they would have been a team that nobody would have wanted to face.

But the almighty question is this: To what end? Is it really worth it to keep a mediocre team together hoping to pull off an improbable upset or two in the playoffs and eventually shock the world en route to winning a championship? Is the team close enough to the promise land to stick with the program and stay true to the current cast of characters? Can adding one or two pieces help to take the team over the top?

Those were all questions that Ujiri asked himself last season after the Raptors fell to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. He went out and drafted the Brazilian-born Bruno Caboclo in the 2014 NBA Draft and acquired Lou Williams from the Hawks.

Despite getting no appreciable production from Caboclo, the Raptors responded by racing out of the gates and beginning the season 15-5. Shortly thereafter, DeRozan went down. Lowry stepped up and although the team could not sustain that level of proficiency, they would eventually eclipse the single-season record for wins. This season’s 49-33 record was one game better than last season’s 48-34.

Again, though, the question is simply: To what end?

Can Jonas Valanciunas become an everyday contributor and help the Raptors get to the next level? What about Terrence Ross? Can the Raptors attract free agents? Can Ujiri corral another piece this offseason the way he acquired Williams last summer?

Amir Johnson, Lou Williams and Tyler Hansbrough will all be free agents come July 1. Should Ujiri re-sign each of them, doubling-down on his existing core and looking to augment their talents? Would doing so relegate the Raptors to becoming the modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks?

Or should Ujiri pull the plug now, cut bait and begin looking toward the future?

In all fairness, these may not be questions that we would be asking if Lowry and DeRozan were both healthy for the entire season. Had they been, the Raptors may very well have finished the season as the second or third seed in the conference and have been matched up with either the Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics. If they play either of those teams, odds are, they would have succeeded in their first round series and advanced into the second round of the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.

Instead, they ponder another long summer North of the Border.

* * *

On April 3, the Raptors visited Brooklyn to do battle with the Nets. The sharply dressed Ujiri made the trip and he talked to Basketball Insiders about his story and his assuming the mantle of one of the better teams—at least based on record—in the conference.

There, we discussed the team’s health issues, the challenges they faced moving forward and what the Raptors needed to do in order to continue to rise up in the Eastern Conference.

Ujiri was kind and polite and his mere presence among the media was indicative of the confidence that he has as both an individual and a general manager.

That night, despite getting 71 combined points from DeRozan, Williams and Valanciunas, the Raptors fell to the Nets. They would end up finishing behind the Bulls by a single game in the standings and, lo and behold, that appears to have made all the difference.

In today’s NBA, more than almost everything else, we have learned to value instant gratification. We want rookies to come in and make an immediate impact. We want teams that feature a freshly mashed hodgepodge of talent to appear as though they have played together for years. And yes, we want teams to show evident signs of progression, even under the most daunting of circumstances.

In a world where teams change coaches as often as players change their sneakers, patience is a virtue that has worn thin, particularly in the contemporary NBA.

As the Raptors ponder what went wrong in a season that seems to have ended far earlier than they thought it would back in December, it will be extremely interesting to see whether Ujiri opts to double down on his core by re-signing his key free agents, or whether he will channel his inner Danny Ainge and start a proactive demolition project, believing that the current cast of characters he has assembled in Toronto has already peaked and played to their ceiling.

By the looks of it, especially in today’s NBA, nobody should be caught off guard if it ends up being that these current cast of Raptors soon find themselves broken and extinct.